VIKA & LINDA BULL: Sister Act
Coming to prominence in the ‘80s withThe Black Sorrows both Vika and Linda Bull have had amazing music careers that, as a duo, has taken them from stage to stage across Australia and the world, as well as the theatre and television circuit.
With a bond that breaks through the walls of vocals harmonies, the Bull sisters have an enigmatic charm that echoes across the Australian music scene. When you listen to the two sisters sing you are struck by Vika Bull’s voice with it’s lightning bolt power, grit and gusto complemented by, and in contrast to, Linda Bull’s voice. A soulful, sweet and melancholy voice reminiscent of the country singers of old.
THE PIN. Can you tell me a bit about your childhood and where you grew up?
VIKA BULL. We grew up in Doncaster, it was a very conservative area.
LINDA BULL. Not many dark skinned people….
V. There were none!
L. You couldn’t buy chilli and things like that [both laugh].
V. Things like that really mattered to Mum because she liked to make curries, but we grew up there because Dad's family had been in the area for a long time and had orchards. They actually didn’t really like it that much. Dad said it was a dry area to begin with. There wasn’t a pub for miles.
L. Very important…
V. Mum was one of the first Tongans here [in Melbourne] so she started the church. After church the Tongans would come back to our place and dig up the yard, and cook their ‘umu, roast their pigs, sing songs, and the neighbours were horrified.
L. They brought the culture to the suburbs because there was no culture for us.
V. Yeah, so we spent most of our time hiding under the bed, because we were embarrassed.
L. The Greeks and Italians were the next wave. We were in the early ‘70s and it was predominantly middle class white Australian families. We were an anomaly, there was a Greek girl that lived up the road but we could see that she was also struggling. In our primary school it was very Australian.
V. I mean, great kids, but we were picked on of course. We didn’t really know that we had brown skin until we went to school. It was made very obvious.
You were saying how your mum helped build and facilitate bringing Tongan people together. Was your house like a mini-Tonga for people in that area?
L. There were a few Tongan families scattered around. There would be gatherings, funerals, things like that, they would gravitate towards our house or another family's house out in Mount Waverley.
V. Mum arrived during the White Australia Policy, that was in 1956. That was a really hard time for her.
Were there particular aspects of either culture you were drawn to growing up?
V. The singing and dancing in Tongan culture. They are very community minded and the extended family is very supportive. Whereas, on Dad's side, it was completely different. I remember Mum having to make sandwiches and serving tea in a silver service type thing to my uncle, because he loved that. I kind of liked that part of the culture, the silver would always come out and she’d make these beautiful cucumber sandwiches for him. She’d always set the table with the silver and crystal. That’s what she’d do for Dad.
L. And as a trade, he let the Tongans dig up the back yard! I loved the food and the big gatherings. Tongans are fun and always laughing. It fills your house with joy when all the food comes out. That was great. On the Australian side I quite liked the fact that it was just us when we went to bed [laughs]. Mum would often sponsor people and we’d get the floor and they’d sleep in our beds. If it was up to her, we would have had the house full of Tongans all the time.
You were saying that church and singing played a really big role in your lives, obviously it’s followed through to your music careers, what did music mean to you when you were young? Do you think you would’ve been drawn to it regardless of your Tongan background?
L. I think that if we hadn’t of had that Tongan influence it would’ve been different. We were thrown into church all the time from a young age it was just a natural thing. Everyone sung. We didn’t have lessons. Our mum taught us how to sing but I don’t know if we would’ve ended up being singers. Both Mum and Dad loved it but Mum went out of her way. We’d be on family holidays and she would turn on a song and say, ‘okay, Vik you take the high part, Linda you take the low part because she could hear our natural voices. She’d say ‘hold the note, cut it off’...
V. Dad had a big part to do with it too. He loved the singing and made sure we went to church, it was like four hours long, but he’d make us sit there only to listen to the choir.
Was race ever an issue for you growing up? You mentioned you became aware of it in school, was it something that hit you straight away?
V. Yep, straight away.
L. There are awful stories but like Mum says, we had it nowhere nearly as hard as she did. We were just learning the other day that Vika decked a kid because of his racial comment and luckily his mother agreed.
V. I really hit him hard. He ended up at the doctors. I was only little, maybe five years-old or something.
L. It was pretty extreme because it was so blatant. Our kindergarten teacher would separate me and this Asian kid, they’d put us separately in a different section. Vika had a nickname at primary school.
V. Coke. Looking back, it hurt. Mum made us tough though, she said, ‘nup, don’t put up with that’.
L. Most of the time Dad didn’t know. Years later, about fifteen years ago he said, ‘why didn’t you tell me?!’. But what can you do?
V. By the time I got to highschool I thought surely this will end. I remember standing in line at the tuck shop and this girl said to her friend, ‘oh, she’s a boong. I went ‘what the fuck is a boong? What the hell is that?!’. The other girl said, ‘that’s nasty, don’t say that’ and stuck up for me.
L. At the time, boong was a slur used against Aboriginal people. A horrible word. N*gger was something else they’d say. It was pretty horrible.
V. That was only a few kids, most kids were great. They were cool.
L. We went to a private school too. Mum and Dad worked their butts off to send us. It was a really great school but a lot of the girls came from a lot of money and there was an attitude amongst the mums in the tuckshop of ‘what are you doing here?’.
V. When we first started at school the principal said to Mum, ‘look, would you mind if the girls call Vika by her second name Susan?’. Mum asked why and she said, ‘I’m a bit worried the girls might have a bit of a problem pronouncing Vika’. Mum said, ‘what’s so hard about that? It’s two syllables VI-KA. Her name is Vika and that’s what everyone will call her’. That was the first introduction. I love the name Susan, don’t get me wrong, but I’m so glad she stuck with it.
L. You’re not a Susan.
V. It’s a nice name though.
Do you wish you could speak Tongan?
Do you think being able to speak the language would give you a stronger connection to Tonga?
L. We can understand a little bit about what they’re talking about. We can follow, but if someone asked for a particular word we wouldn’t be able to say it.
V. That’d be something good to do now that I’m an empty nester, learn the language!
When you moved, you both almost pursued other careers outside of music, but were drawn back. Was it easy to fall into the scene?
V. Because we moved to Fitzroy it was really great, it was happening. There were the Bachelors from Prague, we’d get up and sing with them a lot. Henry Mars was very supportive of me and Linda.
L. There were gigs everywhere, not like now. You could get a gig anywhere then, it’s not as easy now.
V. Because everyone's doing it! Everyone is forming a band and wants to be a musician. Back then it was considered a hobby.
L. Remember when we used to walk down the street? Around here, you’d hear bands rehearsing in houses all the time. They’ve moved!
V. It was great around here [Fitzroy], Brunswick Street was fantastic. There was Marios, the Black Cat where we worked. We learnt a lot of music from there, because they had a great record collection. Every shift we’d be putting on Aretha Franklin.
Who were the music people you were aspiring to be?
V. We didn’t really know, our favorite records that Dad had were Elvis, Mahalia Jackson, Bill Haley & His Comets, Charley Pride, they loved country music as well, then Tongan choir music. They loved everything. That’s what we listened to when we were young but when we got to Fitzroy that’s when we hit our stride. We started hanging out with musicians here they introduced us to singers like Etta James and Ruth Brown, people like that.
When you were forming your first band was identity ever an issue and were assumptions made about you?
V. When we signed to a record company is when it happened. They basically said, ‘okay, we want you to make a soul record’. It’s like, ‘why?’....‘ah, because you’re black’. We said, ‘we don’t want to make a soul record, we want to make a country record’. But no, no no, you should do soul. We were like, ‘okay’, but we didn’t. That’s when it happened but not when we were hanging around Fitzroy, singing with different bands and guesting.
L. There was a little bit of the ‘you can sing because you’re dark’ thing.
Oh yeah, I know that...the rumour continues, sing, dance [all laugh]. What does music allow you to feel or express that you can’t in everyday life?
V. A lot of things. I think that you can’t really express or sing great until you’ve lived life a bit. I think that’s why people become better singers as they get older. Life experience is what makes you great, I think. Once you’ve had those experiences you can produce it through singing.
When you’re singing together, did that bring you closer?
L. Our career together has brought us closer. We’ve been through ups and downs together and kept our friendship. I’ve always made sure we’re sisters first, and singing partners second. I think that’s really important. I don’t get any enjoyment seeing Vika not do well. We’re competitive, but in a good way. I think that’s important to know.
Almost in a way to encourage the other to go further...
L. Yeah! We were close as kids, but I think we have now been working together for over thirty years, which is unusual. A lot of sibling acts fall out. I think our family has kept that going, we have such a strong foundation.
V. Mum worked really hard on that, to make sure we were really close. If we fought we had to make up in front of her. ‘Come here you two! Make up!’ [laughs]...Okay.
Did you get asked where are you from growing up?
L. Yep, and still do! All the time.
V. It’s a pain in the arse. You say, ‘Tonga’ and they say ‘sorry?’. Now we say Polynesian.
L. If you say Australian they say, ‘yeah but where else’. So we just go straight to Polynesian. I think sometimes that offends Dad because we’re not Polynesian, we’re half-half.
V. A lot of people don’t know where Tonga is. But now there are Rugby players who have put Tonga on the map.
THE PIN. This is the last question, if you could give your younger self one piece of advice, what would it be?
VIKA BULL. Mine is to write, and to stick at it because you get better and better.
Are you writing stuff now?
V. Nope, too lazy. For me, singing is innate. I find it easier than talking to people. I think because of that, when it comes to having to learn other instruments, I find the challenge of that overwhelming. I can’t do it.
V. I’m like that. Exactly the same.
LINDA BULL. I think that’s what I would say to myself then. If things are difficult, you should probably persevere.
- This interview has been edited and condensed.